Cool Tools for the Webcomic Jet Set

Creators make webcomics. Cool tools make the webcomic community go round. Here’s to the geeks, the code monkeys, and the computer science students who come up with ingenious hacks to help creators automate publishing and fans find a webcomic’s latest update.

I – Finders, Keepers!
If you’re looking to find, keep up with, or make a webcomic, someone out there has worked hard to make it easier for you. There are services that provide notice when webcomics update, sites that provide webcomics directories and top vote lists. There are even sites that make it possible for anyone to let their inner-webtoonist out without having to pick up pen or paper or borrow copyrighted characters from videogames.

Traditionally, the large search engines had some number of comic categories that may or may not have broken out webcomics as a category. Coverage was spotty as it was often difficult to get new webcomics listed on sites that were slow to update, like Yahoo or Excite. Around 1999, however, Big Panda debuted a webcomics-only directory that not only provided much greater categorization of comics but notice of updates for individual comics and a voting system that ranked webcomics by how many visitors they sent to or through the Big Panda website (See T Campbell’s History Series for more information on Big Panda). The deterioration and disappearance of Big Panda from the Internet created a hole that someone had to fill. Several sites have recreated and improved on the ideas that Big Panda introduced.

Online Comics
Josh Roberts started Online Comics in October 2001. It has quickly become one of the largest and most comprehensive directories of webcomics on the Internet. Roberts notes that the vast majority of the feedback to the site has been positive. "Comic creators really seem to appreciate the traffic the directory has generated for them," said Roberts.

"Believe it or not, I started it as a way to teach myself MySQL," said Roberts. "I’ve always been a big comics fan, so I decided that a database of online comics would be a fun way to learn. The database really grew pretty quickly, and so did the traffic."

Roberts uses Dreamweaver MX for most of the HTML, and handcodes all the PHP and MySQL. "It seems like there are always a thousand projects on my list of things to do," said Roberts. "I’ve been trying to add a forum for years now, but I’d rather not use anything pre-scripted. So that means coding a forum from scratch, which is a pretty big project."

Roberts admits that while he does read comics, he is not necessarily a fan of webcomics. "I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me here, but honestly I’m more of a print comics fan – Lone Wolf and Cub, Bone, anything by Miller or Mignola," said Roberts. "There are a ton of cool online comics out there, but when I have time to sit down at my computer, I’m writing code. I read a few pages of each comic submitted to my site, but that’s usually where it ends. Every now and then, one will hook me. I think if I could sit on my sofa and read online comics, I would read a lot more of them."

The Webcomics List
Ash is responsible for The Webcomic List, a site that provides a running list of updated webcomics. In real life, Ash is a student studying Software Engineering in the Computer Science Department at Sheffield University and does freelance web design to make ends meet. "Around Christmas time last year I saw PAINT (a program that provides users with notice of updates at the Penny Arcade website) and thought it would be cool to make a program that did a similar thing for many webcomics," said Ash. "On the way to creating the program I made the first version of the site, then I decided that it would be more useful than a program, so I stopped making it and just concentrated on the site."

Ash notes that feedback so far has been "really positive" with lots of requests from creators to add their webcomic to the site. "Creators usually email to ask if their genre can be changed, and then thank me for listing them," said Ash. "All very mundane sadly, no ones emailed me photos of their boobs – I may be in the wrong business."

Readers have suggested several new ideas that Ash has implemented including personal favorites lists. "Ideally I’d like to make it a comic directory rather than list," said Ash, "and allow comic creators to add their details automatically but the way the bot works this will be very difficult to achieve." Ash explained further that the site relies on a bot (written in Perl) which queries listed webcomics every hour to determine if the site has updated or not.

Ash is something of a webcomics fan. He keeps a list of his favorites at his site (you can view here) and looks after the Weebl and Bob website.

Mneonix08 initially started his buzzComix site as a hub for webcomics focused on videogames, but quickly expanded the scope of the site. "As luck would have it, the next month (Feb 2003) (TWC), the reigning champion of comic toplists, ran into a number of bumps in the road," said Mneonix08. "In an attempt to differentiate ourselves from TWC, we quickly changed the name to ‘buzzComix Top 100.’ Also, the amazing Halo came in and gave me a toplist script of his which beat the pants off our old one. He also taught me a great deal
of php so I would be able to tweak it and add features myself."

BuzzComix not only features a toplist for webcomics but forums and a new award program aimed at smaller, less well-known webcomics. The buzzAwards will honor webcomics who have exhibited exceptional quality in a number of categories. Only webcomics with an average of 10,000 uniques per day or fewer are eligible for the buzzAwards. In addition, the nominees will be picked by committee and not voted on by the general public. This means that a comic with very little exposure and fan base could finally get the attention it deserves.

"BuzzComix is VERY closely tied to its fans and users," said Mneonix08. "If you look at some of the announcement threads, you will see that there are no large changes without first consulting the community. The community is always asked what they would like change or improve and, usually, that is what is done."

"If I had infinite time (and funds) I would really like to create a free webcomic hosting service similar to Keenspace."

Mneonix08 will be a freshman at Yale this fall. He has long been a fan of webcomics. "Considering that I run a website for webcomics, I really should read more," said Mneonix08, "but there aren’t enough hours in the day. Here are a small smattering of my favorites in no particular order: Count Your Sheep, Sinfest, Dinosaur Comics, Elf Only Inn, The Order of the Stick, Eidolic Fringe, Pointless and a softer world.

The Keenspace Guide
Created in 2002 (it was first called the Keendex), and constantly tweaked and improved since then, the Keenspace Guide lists and tracks practically every webcomic that exists on Keenspace. When one considers that there are thousands of comics hosted on Keenspace (as of this publication, the Guide currently lists 6731, and further states that "5907 have greater than 0 comics"), one realizes just how much of an endeavor it must be to keep track of it all, no matter how well-structured the database.

It doesn’t stop at just listing the comics by name and giving the URL, either. The automated details it offers are significant: the number of strips a comic has in its archives, the last day it updated, the first strip it ever posted, and the percentage of comic pages viewed compared to the total number of Keenspace pages served. This information is refreshed on a daily basis.

In addition, Keenspace creators can add a number of key details about their comic – style, content, country of origin, language, violence/sexuality ratings, and a short description. All this data is then compiled so that visitors to the Guide can search for specific types of comics that interest them – do you like manga, scientists, hammerspace, allegorical, patriotic, retail, steampunk, parallel travel, management, psychosis, gunbunnies, or even "idiots"? Then there is a category for you to click on, and a number of comics you can check out for each.

Kisai, who serves as one of the volunteer veteran administrators of Keenspace, created this all in her spare time. Her hard work and determination has earned her the respect of many a Keenspacer. In fact, they have gone as far as to create fan art in droves, some examples of which are now posted on an actual Kisai Appreciation Site.

What does Kisai think of all of this? Well, we’re sure she’d tell you, if she wasn’t so busy with admin issues and wielding her giant FAQ hammer to deal with Keenspace newbies and vets alike, all while baring her trademark evilly innocent cat-girl grin.

II – Taking Webcomics to New Places
Now that comics have firmly taken root on the World Wide Web, it remains to be seen where else webcomics can go. It is not hard to imagine reading webcomics on not only your desktop or laptop computer monitor but your cellphone, your PDA or your Gameboy. Any device with visual display capabilities and Internet connectivity may someday be commandeered as a platform for webcomics.

Peter Conrad created an application for the Palm Pilot Operating System (Palm OS) to read webcomics called Zeenster. "I released the first version in October 2003," said Conrad. "I wanted a way to carry around comics on the Palm, and I couldn’t find any decent comics readers out there. So I wrote my own."

Feedback has been very positive. "Actually, while I was at APE, I wore my Zeenster
shirt," said Conrad, "and Lea Hernandez walked up to me and said ‘Oh, are you the guy who wrote Zeenster?’"

Conrad is a creator himself, having created comics for the page and the web. In real life he’s a technical writer. He also seems to be a bit of an enthusiast for programming on the Palm OS. "I love programming on the Palm OS. It’s a really simple environment to work in," said Conrad. "My next application is going to be a little cash register for people to use at conventions."

Conrad is also a fan of webcomics and uses David Devitry’s Webcomics site to follow his favorites.

Publication Overdrive
One thing any creator will quickly discover is that the need to frequently update your website can be not only a pain, but take away time better spent making more comics. Except for those who speak HTML as a second tongue, many webtoonists have happily made use of an automation script to handle all chores related to updating their website. These scripts are generally written in PERL or PHP and sometimes use a MySQL database. Several of these scripts are listed in Comixpedia‘s links directory.

One of the first such scripts was autokeenlite released by Darren Bleuel. Autokeenlite offers simpler functions to the full autokeen scripts used at Keenspot and Keenspace. Bleuel’s scripts allowed webtoonists to load many webcomics to a folder on the server and by using a naming system based on dates have webcomics appear on the website (and in the archives of the webcomic) on the correct date. Despite many webtoonists failure to have a buffer of work done in advance of publication on their websites, the ability to load webcomics to the server far in advance of actual publication date and not have to worry about updating the website later turned out to be the key functionality webtoonists wanted out of an automation script.

ATP Autoupdate
David Schumacher, like many webcomic creators, didn’t like the need to manually update his website every time he added a new installment. So he began creating the PHP script that eventually evolved into ATP. "I initially created the code to automate the process of updating my own comics at the time," said Schumacher. "As my own comics have all concluded or been abandoned by me and my readers years ago now, that is no longer the motivating force."

Schumacher released the first version of the script to the public in February of 2002. "As far as I can recall, I first released the code as 5.4 on February 1st of 2002 (all previous numbers being development versions)," said Schumacher. "That version lasted all of 8 days before I realized a crucial design flaw (I had gone about it the entirely wrong way) and 6.0 was released on the 9th of February. Since then there have been 6 or so major releases."

Feedback has been positive from webcomic creators although Schumacher admits to getting some criticism from other coders because he does not clearly annotate the code. "My coding style is incredibly self serving and does not generally make much sense to other people," said Schumaker. "The second, and more pressing criticism, is from other PHP coders who have managed to sift through my code. Their major complaint is regarding various mistakes of coding practices, efficiency of operation, and security in the code itself. These issues are being addressed."

Schumacher recently announced a new series of updates for the script planned for release later this summer. "The two primary foci of my summer scripting will be streamlining and modularity," said Schumacher. "The Autosite script at this point has a lot of antiquated traces of previous versions." Schumacher continued, "[T]his summer’s revision will be accomplished by first a full analysis of every last line of code, and then secondly a full rewrite from the ground up. As well, the improved modularity will greatly increase my ability to integrate my other scripts with it."

Although he is no longer creating comics, Schumacher remains a fan of webcomics. "My altogether longest standing favorite, and the only survivor of my bookmarks list from 1999, is Freefall by Mark Stanley (a very cool guy who helped me gain my first audience)," said Schumacher. "Jack and Schlock Mercenary are also good solid survivors on my list. Relatively recent additions include Something Positive, Queen of Wands, The Devil’s Panties, and Angst Tech."

Webcomics creators and fans have benefited from the many cool tools made available by people who generally have done so out of their sincere enthusiasm for webcomics. Although they may not obtain fame or fortune for their efforts, they help make it easier for all of us to enjoy the "webcomics community." Webcomic geeks, Comixpedia salutes you!

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